We are approaching the start of a new year, during which America will elect a new leader. As we use this time to reflect on our lives and how we lead them, I feel it would also be most appropriate to reflect on religion in general — and Judaism in particular — and how we lead our lives as Jews in this great American nation.
Last month, I had the privilege of addressing a session of the Democratic National Convention, entitled “Faith in Action.” Along with three clergypersons of other faith-traditions, I was asked to deliver a keynote address. Mine was entitled “Our Sacred Responsibility to Our Neighbor.”
By including such a session in the program, the convention planners were clearly affirming a role for religion in the American political arena. Many disagree about the legitimacy of that role from a constitutional perspective, but others disagree because of a historic misconception about the nature of mature religion, which needs to be rectified.
Under this misconception, religion is seen as an “opiate” for the masses or as an “illusion” for the naïve. It is seen as absolutist, rigid, infantile, and simplistic. This is not the religion I know; this is not core Judaism.
Let me clarify: At its very core, Judaism calls for lifelong study, for an engagement with traditional texts and their application to the complex and changing realities of life. Far from being simplistic, rigid, or naïve, Judaism enlivens the critical function. It struggles mightily with subtlety and conflict. It combines firm commitment with pragmatic flexibility. It dignifies mature reflection and embraces complexity.
When we contemplate the role of faith-traditions in a democratic society, it is of such a subtle complex creativity and mature religion of which we speak. The voice of such an institution is essential for a polity which wishes to engage, freshly and effectively, the ethical challenges with which our times confront us.
The faith-tradition for which I speak is proud to endorse scientific research, including stem cell research, while not compromising the value of the beginnings of human life.
The faith-tradition for which I speak is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, but recognizes that abortion, while generally prohibited, is sometimes permitted, and sometimes mandated.
The faith-tradition for which I speak values the individual, and his autonomy, but recognizes that the needs of the collective sometimes require the suspension of individual rights.
The faith-tradition for which I speak believes in the truth of its message and in the uniqueness of its adherents. But it also respects other people of faith and people of no faith as being created in the image of God.
Judaism has taught its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, of the vital importance of peace. But it also knows of the importance of a just war and the need to struggle actively against evil.
Because of our painful and often tragic history, we appreciate, perhaps more than any other minority, the freedom afforded us by this great nation, and especially of the principle of separation of church and state. At the same time we are convinced that there are undeniably legitimate ways for the government to assist parents who choose to educate their children in parochial schools, so that these children will share the benefits of a general education with all other American children, while also gaining access to the treasures of their faith-traditions.
Thus, we believe in our conception of a proper way of life, at the same time as we embrace the benefit of a pluralistic and open society.
In short, we do not believe that faith is necessarily primitive, monolithic, or blind to the ambiguity and internal contradictions of our era. We believe that faith can be a model for struggling with complexity and nuance in a creative, relevant, intelligent, and efficacious manner. And we therefore assert that there is a place, nay a necessity, for religion in a democratic society as it struggles mightily to retain morality and decency in the face of the formidable, but not insuperable, challenges of the 21st century.
We enter into the Jewish New Year encouraged that both political parties have now opened themselves to the resources of religious thought. As Jews, we are committed to contributing to the advancement of this great nation by drawing from the wellsprings of our timeless faith.
Ketivah va-chatimah tova. A happy and peaceful New Year to all!
Rabbi Weinreb is Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.